The surprising thing about Viggo Mortensen is how talkative the guy is. Seriously: The smolderingly still presence of Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy turns out to be a regular Chatty Cathy in person.
He's at the Toronto International Film Festival promoting not one but two movies, the big-budget Appaloosa (opening in Boston this Friday) and the small WWII-era drama Good. In addition, the much-awaited movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road also opens this fall. Busy boy.
The place is a Toronto hotel suite and the subject is Appaloosa, a western with both classic and revisionist elements that is directed by and stars Ed Harris as Virgil Cole, one of a pair of bounty hunters hired to clean up a frontier town. Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons also star, and Mortensen plays Cole's partner, the slightly more articulate Everett Hitch.
This is interesting, since like many creative folk - and Mortensen's a photographer, painter, and poet when he finds the time - the actor tends toward abstractions and diversions in conversation. Entire paragraphs can pass by without a concrete noun, but you don't mind because he's friendly and easygoing - a man with the attitude of a surfer, the eyes of a killer, and the brain of a slacker bookworm. Blithely ignoring the hotel's no-smoking policy (as well as everything else - he's a celebrity and he knows it), Mortensen discourses on westerns old, westerns new, and the glories of having absolutely nothing on his plate.
I understand you spent time ranching when you were growing up?
I was raised in Argentina and I learned to ride when I was little; I always liked horses. If you end up riding, it's probably because some part of you is comfortable doing it, and I am. It makes it fun to be in a western - although I wouldn't do a western just to ride, because most westerns aren't very well made, I think.
They're not well acted, they're not well written, they're not that well directed. Most of them are horrible. When they first started making movies, they made hundreds of westerns - thousands. That was the big genre. Now it's not. Now it's the minority genre, but every once in a while, a really nice one gets made.
Did you have an affinity for westerns when you were growing up?
I liked 'em. Being raised in Argentina, once in a while I'd see a gaucho western, but it had the same ideas: loyalty, self-sacrifice, self-sufficiency, revenge, discretion, a certain way of speaking. [Appaloosa] was so well-crafted in the work that Robert Knott and Ed Harris did in researching and getting the language right. All the characters, even if they're being direct and even if the circumstances are primitive sometimes, speak in a language with a formality and a politeness - a sort of a Victorian nicety that we no longer use. It was fun to wear those words.
Did you build Everett up by looking toward classic western movies roles, or western history, or just by thinking about the character?
I was really looking at history. Photographs, in particular, and Remington drawings. For example, the way of shooting: There's an etching by Remington of a guy in the street that's in that same position I'm in at the end there. I guess from movies, too, probably subconsciously. Man of the West, the Anthony Mann movie where Gary Cooper was a little older, or [i]Monte Walsh. I like Missouri Breaks. And Red River[/i], a case, as in this movie, where most of the main actors are not known as "western" actors. Montgomery Clift had basically never done a movie, much less a western, and he's an urban easterner. He comes out stepping smack in the middle of John Wayne's turf, and working for Howard Hawks, he must have been a little nervous, I'm sure. But he did a great job. I think he pushed Wayne into giving my favorite Wayne performance.
Do you feel comfortable in these roles?
I like it. And I think Ed's made for it. He's not known for it but I think people are going to look at him differently now. Not too many people who are alive now - Eastwood, Duvall maybe - can do so much with such economy. It's kind of ballsy these days when there's so much visual and verbal overstatement in performances. That's what makes the money, that's what gets the attention, that's what wins the prizes and gets the nominations. Maybe it's technically expert but it's overwrought. Most actors, if they tried to do what Ed did in this movie, they'd be flat. There would be nothing going on. But that exchange between Jeremy and Ed in the bar is just great to watch, and Ed's side of it - watching him shoot the medium close-up and close-up - was just great to watch. His behavior, and the sly humor, and everything being so subtle.
Is there a difference between dealing with him as an actor and dealing with him as a director?
Not much, no. I find him as an actor - and as a director - to do that thing that I think only the best actors can do, which is to not miss a beat. They're aware of everything going on around them. When I think I'm doing my best work is when I'm aware of everything and everything's useful. A mistake that's made, the weather, a change in the lighting, a crew member moves - it all just makes it alive. It makes things more immediate and suddenly . . . important. Even the smallest little moment. And it's fun! It's fun to play with someone who's that skilled. They make you better.
Do you still paint?
I haven't had as much time. I have a lot of unfinished things lying around, but I'll get to them, I guess.
Is there one medium that feeds your head more than the others?
Not necessarily. Although you don't control a movie and you have the frustration of sometimes wondering why they didn't keep that scene in, working in moviemaking does allow you to directly or indirectly involve yourself, no matter what your function is on the set, in photography, writing, music, performance, physicality. It's kind of like an interdisciplinary activity. But it's all about telling stories for me: taking pictures, painting, poems. It's all about telling stories, or parts of stories.
Do you have any desire to direct?
I might. I see that when you do it right, like Ed does, or [David] Cronenberg, it takes a lot of time and energy, and you can't really do other things. There's a story I like that I have the rights to that I might adapt and do. But I'd have to have that space and time. I'm trying to clear the boards a little with that in mind. Trying to take part in my own life a little bit more [laughs]. So I'm saying no to everything right now, even though I suppose my agent will go crazy.